Legacy of hate

Good Housekeeping/July 2001
By Kirsten Betsworth as told to Molly M. Ginty

"I hate black people," my eight-year-old son, Oskar, declared one day last year. I had just picked him up from his father's house, and he made the announcement as he got in the car. I asked him why, and he said, "I just hate them." Then I asked which black person he hated, and he couldn't give me an answer.

I wasn't the first - or the last - time I heard Oskar speak this way. I knew he got those ideas from my ex-husband, Kevin, who's a prominent figure in the National Alliance, a hate group that grew out of the American Nazi Party. And I knew that al long as I shared custody of Oskar and my other children - Edgar, six, and Klara Vita, four - with my ex, they would be in danger of becoming like their father.

I married Kevin Alfred Strom in 1990 on a small island off the coast of Virginia. The ceremony was performed by William Pierce, the leader of the National Alliance and an author of the Turner Diaries, the book that is said to have inspired Timothy McVeigh to bomb the federal office building in Oklahoma City in 1995. After we took our vows, Pierce told our friends and family members that the purpose of marriage is to perpetuate the white race. A few of our guests gave us funny looks, but the words just rolled off my back. I was in love and thought I needed to show respect for my husband and his beliefs.

My parents taught me that - to them, being the perfect wife was more important than anything else. My father, a former prison guard and retired master sergeant, and my mother, a housewife, were very, very conservative: They didn't let me go to college and didn't allow me to leave home until I got married. My older brother, Arthur, and I were conditioned never to speak out, never to ask for help, and never to let anyone know there were problems in our family. I remember going to other people's houses and wishing I lived there. It all made me incredibly depressed, and at age 15, I turned to alcohol. I married my first husband young - at 19. I would have done anything to get out of that house.

But the marriage ended in divorce after six months, and I was forced to move back home. Three years later, I met my second husband, Joseph, who got me involved in the white pride movement. I found that the more I agreed with Joseph about his beliefs, the less he would intimidate me. Our marriage lasted only a year, and I didn't know where to turn when it was ending. I couldn't go home again: My parents thought I was a disgrace because my marriages hadn't worked out and because I had turned to self-help groups to help me with my drinking problem. Kevin, whom I'd met in 1987 through Joseph, seemed like my salvation.

In the beginning, Kevin came across as smart and soft-spoken - especially in comparison to Joseph. When I met his friends in the Alliance, they also seemed bright - people who wanted to talk about current events and gun control, as opposed to everyone else in my life, who seemed to care only about football and TV. Kevin and his friends treated me like a queen at first. To them, I was a rarity - a girl who was interested in politics but wasn't liberal. I felt like I belonged somewhere for the first time in my life. One by one, I lost contact with my own friends.

Our first year of marriage was great. Then Kevin and I moved to the Cosmotheist Community, the National Alliance's 350-acre compound in West Virginia that's an hour away from the nearest big town. We lived in a beat-up trailer next to Pierce and his wife. The compound stockpiled food and supplies, and the heating and cooling system ran on its own power. But there never seemed to be more than ten people on "the land" (as they called it) at any one time, even though the Alliance claimed a membership of about 10,000 people.

I started feeling lonely very quickly: Kevin spent 12 hours a day working on an Alliance radio show (for which he got a modest monthly payment) and preparing for the race war, which he said would kill off all the minorities and leave the Aryans in power. We were cut off from the world, and my only companions were the other wives - mostly Eastern European mail-order brides whom Pierce and the other members had brought into the States. For Kevin's sake, I sometimes helped out by photocopying pamphlets and stuffing envelopes with National Alliance literature, or making plastic tubes that were designed to hold a few rifles so you could bury them in your backyard. I even posed for a white supremacist magazine while holding a swastika flag. When I look at that photo now, I don't see Kirsten, but a person who was completely brainwashed.

A year later, when we were about to have our first baby, we moved off the land to nearby Hillsboro. I was happy to leave, but things didn't get much better. I started shutting out the world and the terrible things I was hearing about - like the raid at Ruby Ridge, Idaho, in which federal agents killed the wife of a white supremacist Randy Weaver. I just couldn't handle all this. Right after Edgar was born in 1994, I began to feel really miserable and went to see a doctor. He wanted me to go to counseling, but Kevin wouldn't allo9w it. He thought it would expose him.

That's when we started fighting. Kevin would keep me up for days at a time until I said what he wanted to hear. I remember one particularly bad 48-hour stretch during which he wouldn't leave me alone until I said that giving women the right to vote was what had caused everything in American to go wrong. When we argued, Kevin would call my parents, who'd yell at me to obey my husband. I felt there was nothing I could do about my situation. After all, I had been taught all my life that I was pretty much worthless. And I believed it.

In 1995 we moved to Rochester, Minnesota, a city that was 96 percent white and rated one of the best places to live in the country. I was very excited because I thought I'd be able to socialize more. But even there, I was isolated. I wasn't allowed to make new friends - Kevin was too afraid to let anyone into our house because if they noticed the pamphlets or the books, they would know what we were. He didn't want me to take the kids to the YMCA because he said it was dedicated to the destruction of the white American family.

Kevin continued to do his radio shows for Pierce, and he let me take a job as a real estate agent. But after he wrote a letter to the editor that was published in the Rochester Post Bulletin advocating a racial breeding program, my boss fired me, telling me that he couldn't afford to have "something like this" going on in his office.

While we were in West Virginia, I was cut off from current events - no television, no radio, no newspapers. Although we still didn't have a TV in Minnesota, I was able to hear about what was going on in the world without having it filtered through Kevin. About nine months after the Oklahoma City bombing, I saw reports and pictures from the blast for the first time. I was horrified - it was so much worse than Kevin had made it out to be.

I finally began to step back and question his beliefs. Nothing he was saying could justify what had happened to those children. And I no longer accepted the idea that when the race wars came, I would have to kill the people I loved - like my favorite junior high school teacher who was Jewish; my best friend, a gay classmate who came out to me after we graduated; and even my brother, because he worked for the government.

All of it - the intimidation, my isolation, his anger and hatred - were wearing on me. I didn't think I could take much more. The final turning point came in November 1996. We were listening to the radio one evening and heard that a young couple had killed their baby, stuffing its body into a Dumpster shortly after it was born. I had just had my third child, Klara Vita (who was named for Hitler's mother), and I couldn't imagine anyone doing that to an infant.

Then Oskar tottered into the room and started asking questions about the news. Kevin turned to him and said, "It doesn't matter what happened to that baby because its parents were a gentile man and a Jewish woman. That baby deserved to die." At that moment, I realized I was married to a monster, and he was trying to make another monster out of my son. I started crying, and for months, I couldn't stop. I broke down completely and had to spend ten days in the hospital under psychiatric evaluation.

Kevin left me while I was in the hospital. He got temporary custody of the children due to my mental state. But by the time the hearing came around, I had gotten a low-paying secretarial job, and a judge ruled that I had to give Kevin $430 per month in child support. I ended up in debt to him for thousands of dollars.

As exhausted, frustrated, and scared as I was, I knew I had to fight back. In the hospital, I woke up to how restrictive my life had been and just how horrible Kevin was. He tried to have me committed during my breakdown and, after I got out, kept me from seeing my kids for nine months. I knew the longer I was apart from them, the harder it would be to save them. So two and a half years after the first decision, I went back to court and won joint custody. The judge also determined that Kevin had more money than he was claiming, so I got $61 each month in child support. The legal bills put me $22,000 in debt, but it was worth it.

Still, the custody battle continues. Kevin wants to move back to West Virginia with the kids, and I won't let him have them. They're in bad enough shape as it is. Oskar has been acting out in school. I'm sending him and Klara to therapy to deal with the trauma of going back and forth between their father's household and mine.

Kevin and I continue to battle about treatment for our younger son, Edgar. He was diagnosed with autism at age two, but missed out on crucial years of special education because Kevin wouldn't let him go to the school his doctor recommended. Kevin claimed the school promoted race mixing after seeing non-white kids in their posters and pamphlets. Thankfully, Edgar is doing much better now that he's in a special program for autistic kids.

I'm doing better myself. I've gone through psychotherapy, I'm in college full-time and I'm writing a book. Last year I met a radio producer named Brian Betsworth, and we got married on New Year's Day, 2001. His 11-year-old son, Tony, is with us every other weekend. I had never taken Kevin's name when we were married, but I took Brian's because I wanted to signal the start of my new life.

It's taken me a long time, but I now realize that hating people is just a sign you hate yourself. I don't want my kids to feel that way ever. I escaped from a world of anger and prejudice, and I need my children to know that I figured out what was happening and did my best to speak out. I want to protect Oskar, Edgar, and Klara from their father's beliefs and break the cycle of hate.

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